Yoga for Hikers: Stretch, Strengthen, and Climb Higher by Nicole Tsong (2016)
THE BENEFITS OF YOGA
“Yoga says we must deal with the outer or most manifest first, i.e., legs, arms, spine, eyes, tongue, touch, in order to develop the sensitivity to move inward. This is why asana opens the whole spectrum of yoga’s possibilities.”
—B. K. S. Iyengar, Light on Life
AT ITS HEART, YOGA is a multidimensional and transformative practice. It has immense physical benefits, and those are the ones you learn first. Yoga poses help you become strong, flexible, and graceful. Your body awareness expands, while your endurance builds. Conveniently, you learn to balance on one foot, which is helpful when walking across a precarious log or balancing on rocks in a rushing stream.
The physical lessons also are the gateway to the deeper mental ones, which is what ultimately change lives. It’s why I practice and teach yoga. In this chapter, you will learn more about the physical strength, balance, and stability available through a regular yoga practice, in addition to the ways it can support you mentally to sort through whatever challenges life decides to throw your way on a particular day. You’ll learn new ways to look at injury and how a yoga practice can help you manage and prevent injury as well as rehabilitate.
THE PHYSICAL BENEFITS
A strong, focused practice can echo a long, arduous day backpacking and the reward of exhausted delight that comes from testing your body’s physical limits. You may start your hike distracted, thinking about what time you’ll get back, worried you won’t make it home for that evening’s commitments. But after hours of moving along uneven trails, stopping to listen to a burbling creek, or saying hi to strangers on the trail, you can feel your feet and your breath.
In yoga, your attention is similarly focused on the feeling of the mat under your feet, the experience of inhaling and exhaling, your drishti focused at one point. You can experience the potent mix of physical work and a sense of calm and connection to something bigger than yourself, much like the experience of being outdoors.
Yoga also more readily brings your attention to your thoughts. You notice you are babbling to yourself, and you rely on your breath, gaze, and physical alignment to turn your focus instead to the present.
The same way an epic day of backpacking taxes your body so deeply that you can focus on moving forward one step at a time, yoga deepens your awareness of how your body moves, how your poses are connected to your breath, and how to access a sense of space physically and mentally in that moment. You notice the days you wake up tired, tell yourself you are too tired to go, but still manage a challenging hike, or the days an injury is shouting loudly at you.
One key to staying healthy is using your body in all the ways it was meant to move. Moving in multiple directions challenges your body’s limits and builds strength. When you are strong and mobile, with a deep understanding of how your body moves, you trust it more deeply. You can keep up with an eight-year-old all day. You can work in the garden. You feel excited to try something new, no matter your age.
Or, perhaps you live for multiday backpacks, carrying heavy loads of forty pounds or more. You love twenty-mile days. Effort is your middle name. And your body’s aches and pains tell the story of every trip. Your body needs to rest and release too. Plus, it's hard to make it to the mountains every day. A yoga practice will teach you the importance of reducing physical intensity.
The following physical benefits range from the ones you may know, such as flexibility, to ones you haven’t considered, like deeper body awareness.
THE HAZARDS OF SITTING
The first time I observed adults squatting was in Beijing, China. It was the mid-1990s, and people squatted everywhere—street corners, Tiananmen Square, the Great Wall of China. Their squat was deep, their heels stayed on the ground. They looked relaxed. My American friends and I tried to emulate them, but after just a few moments, we would grimace and stand up.
Many years of yoga and fitness later, I know the squat is a natural and essential resting position (and movement) for the human body. Observe toddlers. They squat to look at something on the ground, or to communicate with a friend—it doesn’t occur to them that it is uncomfortable because for them, it is not.
Many Americans spend the day with their hips in a static 90-degree position, either in a chair or in a car. Once you hit your school years, where you spent the day at a desk, most of you lost your squat. That also may mean you lose some strength for standing up, and mobility in your hips and lower back. If you struggle to get out of a chair, you most likely end up staying there, a perpetual challenge as people age.
According to a report from the Washington Post about the health hazards of sitting, your brain function slows down when you don’t have fresh blood moving through it from physical activity. Sitting leads to a strained neck, sore shoulders and back, tight chest, tight hip flexors, and a weak core and glutes. It can lead to a weak spine and bad back, to poor circulation and soft bones from a lack of activity. Extended sitting can lead to high blood pressure, a greater risk of heart disease, and an overproductive pancreas, which can lead to diabetes and a greater risk of colon, breast, and endometrial cancer. Are you convinced yet?
It’s important to take breaks from sitting by standing periodically and changing position. Some people set timers every 20 to 30 minutes at work to remind them to stand up and get blood flowing back into their legs. It’s also worth noting that your body is completely capable of reclaiming its squat. Follow the Thirty-Day Squat Challenge below!
THIRTY-DAY SQUAT CHALLENGE
Created by movement leader Ido Portal, this challenge is to bring back your squat. You don’t need to do all ten minutes in one stretch, but set out to squat ten minutes a day for thirty days. (For detailed pose instructions, see pp. 64-65.) Set a timer to keep track. When it gets too intense, stand up. See how you feel about your body, mobility, and squat ability by the end of the month.
Note: If you have trouble getting into a full squat, you can practice lowering into a chair without sitting all the way onto the seat, hovering until you get strong and open enough to go into a full squat. Or place a mat or blanket under your heels.
When I meet someone new and tell him I teach yoga, it often prompts a confession—he doesn’t do yoga. Often, he will follow up with a second confession, brow furrowed, that he is terribly inflexible. I counter the confession with my own—I was barely able to touch my toes when I started practicing.
When you open up your body to its natural mobility, when your joints move in all the ways available to your body, and your muscles become more pliable, capable of movements including squats, twists, flexing, or extending to touch your toes. Access all of these directions, and you can crawl under logs, clamber through boulder fields, and perhaps even squat easily!
Certain kinds of repetitive movement naturally tighten up your body. Take hiking: It requires your body to move in the same direction for miles at a time. Your body largely moves in one plane of motion, and carrying a heavy pack for several nights in the wilderness intensifies the effects. If you don’t vary the way you move, your hip flexors and hamstrings get tighter. Your lower back and hips take the brunt of your pack weight. Stress and anxiety accumulate in your body, showing up as tightness in your shoulders, and furthering issues with your lower back and hips.
More than that, if you don’t challenge your body to do all it is capable of, you limit both your understanding of and your range of possibility. The goal with a yoga practice, or any kind of movement, should be to experience your body at its optimal, healthiest, and most energetic.
The key is listening to your body. If you’re tight, that means being kind and working slowly into stretches. If you’re very open, that means not becoming dependent on your flexibility in poses. You can overstretch, especially if you’re stretching where the muscle begins, which pulls on tendons and other connective tissue. “Pay attention to stretch into the target muscle itself,” says Leslie Kaminoff in Yoga Anatomy.
Mobility is key to restoring your body from a long day on a trail. A yoga practice supports multiple approaches to mobility. Most people associate flexibility with static stretching. During Half Pigeon, it takes a full minute before the muscles around the piriformis, a deep hip muscle, relax and the piriformis begins to lengthen, Kaminoff writes. The experience can bounce back and forth between intensity and a deep release.
Yoga poses also include active stretches, known as dynamic stretches, when you contract an opposing muscle to open your muscles safely. For example, engaging your thigh muscles will support flexibility in your hamstrings, opening them more effectively. You also lengthen your muscles by contracting in moves like lifting one leg off the floor while in a Downward-Facing Dog pose. In a vinyasa practice, when you repeatedly move through similar poses, muscles stretch over time as they warm up. Your body is doing constant active stretches at the beginning of practice, contracting some muscles to lengthen other tissue.
Many people experience some form of tightness in their hips and their shoulders. Sitting is a major factor for both. Also, if you primarily walk, hike, or run, your muscles become accustomed to that same motion and direction.
You may be surprised by how many parts of your body can open up. Your ankles become more flexible with Downward-Facing Dog and squats. Your ankles and feet strengthen during balancing poses. Your wrists get stronger in arm balances like Crow, and learn to relax and open during Plank and Downward-Facing Dog. Yoga poses also include many twists that relax tight muscles in your trunk and keep your spine healthy. Backbends open up your chest and heart area, teaching you to let go in your shoulders.
Your body can release tension through a regular breath practice, which ultimately allows your body to open up. When you work into mobility, you can experience the full freedom of a wide range of motion for hiking and life.
STRENGTH AND STABILITY
The physicality of a yoga practice offers you insight into where your strengths reside, and where you can focus to build needed strength. Holding poses, in particular, requires your body to adapt to what’s happening in the moment. Holding Warrior strengthens stabilizer muscles around your hips, knees, and ankles, while pausing in Plank stabilizes your wrists, hands, shoulders, and your core.
Creating stability in a yoga practice begins at your foundation—your feet. Activate your feet, and your leg muscles will light up, stabilizing your knee and hip joints. Move into your core and shoulders, and you create stability everywhere. The more you practice and listen deeply to your body, the more you strengthen different muscles. Your body loves to cheat, and will depend upon the strongest muscle rather than engaging the proper muscle for good alignment. In the standing pose Warrior 2, for example, people often let their front knee cave in and hip jut out, allowing their stronger thigh muscle to compensate for weak glutes. By centering your front knee over your ankle and pulling your front thigh bone into your hip socket, you strengthen your outer hip and butt muscles and create more stability around your hip.
All yoga poses call for core engagement throughout the practice, and doing so supports your lower back, elevates your spine, and engages your back muscles, all of which you use on a hike.
As you work into your body’s strength and stability, you will see other benefits, like stronger bones and improved bone density from holding your body weight. As you get stronger in your core and shoulders, holding Plank—the beginning of a push-up—will not be as hard as it once was, though I can’t promise it will ever be easy. You’ll learn to access and stabilize your shoulders in a forward fold. You’ll feel your ankles get stronger. You’ll experience more freedom in your hands and wrists.
When a practitioner named Marie first came to me at age seventy-seven, she had trouble standing on one foot. During balancing poses, she would grit her teeth, a look of determination in her eyes. She wanted to do them over and over, occasionally ignoring me when I gently suggested we move on. She taught me a thing or two about discipline—she stopped wearing shoes at home to help her feet get stronger; she practiced Tree while she brushed her teeth; she requested balancing poses every week so she could show me how much she was improving.
After a couple months of weekly yoga sessions combined with her daily regimen, she came in one day and told me that for the first time in years, she was able to pull her pants on, one leg at a time—while standing on one foot. The smallest triumphs can be the biggest breakthroughs, and it was huge for her.
Your body’s ability to balance is based on an intricate system including vision, inner balance function in your ears, your core, and legs. Balance is a critical function that runs in the background all day. You don’t notice, but your eyes take in the horizon, your ears calculate when your head moves, and your core and feet adjust to movement. Your brain is the coordinator, syncing all of this to keep you upright. It knows how to adjust when you heave on a heavy pack for a multiday trip.
If you don’t challenge your body’s ability to balance, you lose it, says Chris Morrow, a physical therapist. The older you get, the less likely you are to test your balance out of fear of falling; one-third of people older than sixty-five fall every year.
One simple strategy anyone can do to improve balance is to take away one of the essential systems, like sight, Morrow recommends. Another is to focus on the parts of your body that coordinate balance. Notice your feet. See what happens when you scrunch your toes, and your foot arches. Practice lifting all of your toes and setting them back on the floor. Rise up onto the balls of your feet and balance there, then walk. Walk on your heels. All of these small movements bring your attention to your feet, and you’ll notice how the parts work together.
All of the poses I describe require you to pay attention to your foundation, typically your feet, although some of them include your hands. In standing poses, you place your feet on the ground at various distances to test your center of gravity. Many poses strengthen your butt muscles and outer hips, which play a major role in balance. Balancing poses where you stand on one leg, like Tree in chapter 3, challenge you to stay upright on one foot. When your center of gravity moves, your body adapts, and you strengthen both your grounded foot and your core.
You might find your standing foot cramps as it relies on deeper ligaments and tendons that keep your foot stable. With different positions for your upper leg, torso, and arms, your body must figure out new ways to keep you upright.
You also can play with taking away sight in your yoga practice. Start out in a standing Mountain Pose, with your eyes closed. Notice how your body sways, adjusting to balance until your pelvis centers itself over your feet. Next, close your eyes in Warrior 2 (see Strength Practice I). Your awareness of your feet grows, and you notice how important it is to engage your core so you don’t fall over.
Experiment with eyes closed during Tree pose, and see how much you rely on your eyes to stay upright. Stand in Mountain Pose and observe how your inner ear balance works by turning your head slowly side to side. The longer you practice and the more stable your balance becomes, the more playful you can be.
EASE AND RECOVERY
One of the essential yoga teachings is ease. In the Yoga Sūtras, there’s a teaching called sthira sukham asanam (STEE-rah SOO-kum AH-sa-nam). Basically, it means combining steadiness and ease.
Fun and laughter is a surefire way to invoke ease, even when students are shooting me murderous glances during Warrior 2. I often tease my students for being Type A (it takes one to know one), and ask them to observe if they are being overzealous. I can spot those students from across the room—their arms and legs shake, their gaze is like a laser beam drilling a hole into the wall, and they avert their eyes when I suggest they soften their shoulders or jaw to relax into a pose.
But once those students learn to soften, they are often surprised. That is the moment when they can hold a pose longer than they thought. When you take a Chair pose, you can feel your feet, legs, hips, and core resisting gravity to keep you in the pose. You may still wish for nothing else on this earth but for the pose to end, and you also notice that it’s possible to deepen your breath, set your gaze, and stay focused. Like when you reach the next false summit or are deep into a marathon, when you think you’re almost there and then you realize you have miles to go. Instead of thinking grimly you’ll never make it, you take a deep breath, let go of worrying about how much longer you have, and you keep going. You practice being present with your body.
Proprioception is your brain’s understanding of where your body is in space. Your body learns balance by sensing where your body parts are in relation to each other and gauging strength and movement through muscles, tendons, and your joints.
When you learn a new skill, your body picks up new elements of movement. The more you ask of your body, the more your brain forms circuits between existing neurons to meet the new demands. Proprioception is what allows you to walk in the woods after dusk with a headlamp. It’s how you can run without looking at your feet. It’s why we feel awkward doing a new, unfamiliar activity.
Challenge your body’s sense of space with new activities that are out of your comfort zone. If you don’t dance, try a new dance class. If you’re not a trained dancer, you might notice how tough it is to coordinate your hands, feet, and torso to the beat. It might feel nearly impossible. But if you keep going back to the class, and practicing the steps over and over, your body starts to learn them. Suddenly, the spin on one foot combined with the stomp of another, is possible. You have just built new circuits for your brain and body.
The more you relax in a pose and the more your brain can focus on the muscles that hold you there, the better your body understands which muscles to engage and which ones to relax. You don’t need to knit your eyebrows in any pose, trust me. This softer approach will serve you everywhere, particularly on a long hike. Think about if you spent the entire time hiking with your teeth gritted and without pause, never taking a break to shed layers, to drink water or catch your breath. You would tire out, your mind slowing, your ability to enjoy the hike crumbling. But if you stop, take a deep breath, remove a sweaty layer, eat a snack, and look around, you can appreciate your rich surroundings.
The next level of ease is supporting your body in release and recovery. If you spend most of your time in intense activity, your body stays in a constant state of stress and tension. Physical therapist Morrow advises that people take on calming exercises for overall health and balance. If your body feels happy, safe, and secure, rather than stressed and anxious, it will perform better.
Adding in a yoga practice dedicated to recovery is important for everyone. In practices designed to help your body relax and stretch out tight hips and shoulders, you may notice earlier if something is not working properly. Recovery and ease is the path to understanding your body and giving it space to heal for the next trail.
Understanding your body starts at the granular level—the sensation of your feet on the floor, the feeling of your ribs expanding and contracting while you breathe. The more you focus on feeling the sensations in your body, the more you will understand how your body moves in space, or proprioception (see sidebar earlier).
Yoga poses deepen your understanding of where your body is in space and how to maneuver on a microlevel of awareness. Alignment teaches you to feel the difference between pitching your pelvis, shaped like a bowl, forward and a neutral pelvis, where the front and back are even. You might notice you always stand with your pelvis tipped forward, your core slack, contributing to a sore lower back.
Kristin Hostetter, gear editor at Backpacker magazine, once broke four ribs during a ski fall. She credits a regular yoga practice and body awareness with preventing the injury from being worse. “I took such a bad tomahawking fall,” she says. “Because I was strong and had awareness of limbs and where I was in space, I was able to protect myself a lot better than I would have been able to do otherwise.”
THE BETTER YOU KNOW your body and how it moves in space, the deeper your understanding of poses and alignment will be, and the more it will serve you in life anywhere. Your ability to listen to your body will be greater. You’ll notice which muscles are strong, and which ones could use some work. You’ll trust your body to do what you ask it to do, essential for any athlete. You’ll feel free to test your body on new hikes. You’ll know how to keep your body healthy, safe, and strong.
Gear Editor, Backpacker magazine
Q: What was your first yoga class like?
A: I was completely lost, trying to learn poses and the sequence, and quiet my mind, and do all the other things the instructor was talking about. I couldn’t believe how hard it was. By the end, I was in love. I saw a really dramatic change in my body after practicing five days a week for two weeks. I loved the way it felt.
Q: How has yoga helped you physically?
A: I broke four ribs in a ski fall. It was just crippling for me. My yoga teacher had me doing classes, floor Pilates classes, six weeks after the fall, which was incredible. I couldn’t believe what I could actually do. I would have been a lot worse off had I not had the core strength and the body awareness that yoga has taught me.
Q: Is there a connection for you between yoga and hiking?
A: Hiking is so important to me. I can’t imagine ever having to choose between the two. They’re very different on the outside. When you look at them from their root, they make you happy, bring you peace, and bring you joy. I feel lucky to have found two things that bring me all that.
Q: What type of pose speaks to you?
A: I love when I’m in a balancing pose and I have those few minutes of nothingness in my head where I realize I’m perfectly balanced, not only because my body is strong enough to hold me there but because my mind is not distracting me.
A study by researchers at the University of Miami, Florida, discovered that instructors and advanced yoga practitioners engage different muscles from newcomers to yoga or even practitioners with three years of experience or more. In some poses, for example, instructors used their deltoid muscles in standing forward folds, Downward-Facing Dog, and in Warrior poses. Your deltoids stabilize your shoulders, and those with experience have learned over years of practice to engage while folding to deepen the fold. Newer practitioners struggled to use those muscles. More experienced yogis also were more likely to engage their thigh muscles in Plank, which stabilize your knees—an important area of strength for any hiker.
As you practice and focus on alignment, your body will understand how to connect to the bigger, stronger muscles that best support a pose. With deeper body awareness, you also will notice when something feels off and realize it’s time to modify until your body heals, rather than pushing through. A consistent yoga practice teaches you the difference between pain and potential injury, and an intense, challenging practice pushes you to the edge of your strength.
MANAGING AND PREVENTING INJURY
An injury can happen before you know it. One of my biggest lessons happened at a rock climbing gym. I lifted my foot for the next hold, and my hip did a little pop. I ignored it—against my own intuition and everything I knew about moving in an integrated, stable way. I stepped onto the next hold and pressed down into my foot with all of my weight. The sudden pain in my groin shocked me. I spent one full week on the couch, barely moving. Even after a couple of weeks, I couldn’t practice yoga. It took three weeks before I began to recover.
Injuries might happen frequently as you push your body’s limits. Elite athletes in particular may push through pain that signals them to slow down. The real learning comes in how you handle the aftermath.
Deepening body awareness will help you prevent injury. But another important element in a yoga practice is learning the difference between intensity and pain. In an intense pose, your legs may tremble or you may want to give up. Instead, breathe deeply to build endurance. Sharp, shooting pain, a snap or a pop or feeling like you pulled something, however, indicates it is time to stop.
The first step in assessing your injury is to figure out exactly what part of the activity bothers you. Does it hurt when I push off my heel, or is it in my knee in a lunge or when I go down the stairs? Does it hurt every time, or only when I move in certain directions? Does it hurt when I’m not moving at all?
If you’re really curious, you can go online and find out a common compensation for someone, say, in a lunge with knee pain. You might find out you’re not using your butt muscles. If you can stop the compensation, you can come back from the injury once you let the acute injury heal, according to Seattle physical therapist Mark Trombold. If you are uncertain on any level about an injury, go see a professional.
Sometimes you may find that you’re not injured, but instead facing a strength deficit. Injury comes from a weakness in your body, and it’s a sign you need to focus on that area. Your body may compensate for a weakness, and that can cause an injury. Since the body likes to cheat, it will use the strongest muscles rather than the key muscles.
A yoga practice can help you discover your physical weaknesses. When you understand the deficit, you can target particular poses to work on. Once your injury feels better, gradually ease back into activity. Modify your poses or practice as you need to, and spend the time focusing on your breath and listening to your body to know if it’s sharp, shooting pain or the shaky intensity that comes with building strength.
THE MENTAL BENEFITS
Many times, you are the one who chose the difficult hike. You know it will be challenging, but you tell yourself it will be worth it. You head out, excited for a beautiful day with your hiking buddies.
But then the hike itself shows up, and it is far harsher than you envisioned. The trail is relentlessly steep. You plod upward and scold yourself for underestimating the elevation. You spend your time wondering if you will make it, and say out loud maybe you should turn around. You get to the top, but despite a rest and lunch in view of a spectacular waterfall, you can’t stop thinking about the pain of blisters on your heels. You spot the parking lot and realize you have dozens of grueling switchbacks ahead. You wonder if it might be better if you stopped and let a wild beast take you.
“Problems are just places where we have been separated from our authentic selves… . When you change your focus from limitations to boundless possibilities, from doubt and fear to love and confidence, you open your world in entirely new ways. You stop worrying about fixing what’s wrong with you and start living from all that’s right within you.”
—Baron Baptiste, Journey into Power
The hike has become the opposite of joyful, the experience, the antithesis of why you go in the woods. But then something startles you, be it a chattering chipmunk or a vista you missed on the way up. You stop muttering to yourself about how miserable you are—you pause. You look around and notice the beauty of the landscape. You feel amazed at how far your two legs can take you. You realize you are strong enough to finish. Your mental state switches to gratitude. For the first time in hours, you sniff the rich scent of wildflowers. You swig some water, and you go on.
The trick is turning the trail into yoga. Some days it happens easily; some days it does not. But yoga teaches you to notice when you have turned even your favorite pastime into a burden. It teaches you to shift your mindset regardless of hike, job change, or breakup. Yoga is a minute-byminute practice, and when you do it every day, all day, it changes your life.
DISCOVER INNER STRENGTH
Every year, I lead a “40 Days to Personal Revolution” program, designed by my yoga teacher Baron Baptiste. Participants do yoga six days a week, meditate twice a day, and focus on nutrition. My studio includes a nutrition challenge for the program, and participants have the option to give up caffeine, alcohol, tobacco, or sugar for the six weeks. You can choose one—or all.
At the end of the program, one participant, Ellen, came up to me. In the first meeting, Ellen told the group she was giving up sugar, but she shared with me she also had secretly pledged to her program buddy that she would quit smoking.
Ellen had smoked off and on for twenty-one years. She gave up cigarettes when she was pregnant, but picked it up again once her kids were toddlers. Right before starting the “40 Days” program, she completed a yoga teacher training, smoking all the way through it. She started most days with a cigarette and lit one or two more at night.
At fifty-two, Ellen knew smoking was a sign of something amiss in her life. But she couldn’t identify it. When she signed up for “40 Days,” she knew she had the option to give up smoking, but she was undecided at that first meeting.
One theme in the first meeting is integrity, or keeping your word. I remind the students that they, not I, benefit from staying true to their word to practice yoga and meditation. It’s the first moment in years some people have taken steps to prioritize their health and well-being over the needs of their kids, spouses, or careers. No matter how much they may want it, they are often resistant to changing their ingrained habits.
During that first meeting Ellen realized she had to quit smoking, if only to prove to herself she could. A regular yoga practice had already taught her she was physically stronger than she thought. She knew somewhere inside, she was mentally stronger than her cigarette habit.
The first two weeks were hard, she says. She was accustomed to looking forward to her evening cigarette when things got tough at work. The thought of that cigarette helped her hang on during the day. When she struggled, she had to find other ways to feel better. She would go to the bathroom at work and do deep breathing or cry as a release.
Ellen occasionally broke on sugar during the six weeks, and she missed some meditation practices. But she didn’t light a cigarette. “It was acknowledging I was strong enough to be without,” she told me.
During that period, Ellen realized what she had been stuffing down with cigarettes—her angst over her secure corporate job. She had known for years she was unhappy. Instead of making a change, she smoked. With smoking gone, she realized it was time to do something different. Three months after the end of “40 Days,” Ellen gave notice at her job. She’s taking a road trip, and she says she’ll see what’s next.
REDUCE STRESS AND ANXIETY
Yoga and meditation help combat stress, and give you more tools to listen to your body and improve your overall health. The majority of Americans live with moderate to high stress, the American Psychological Association (APA) has found. The most common reason people don’t do more to manage their stress is they say they are too busy. But estimates claim that seventy-five to ninety percent of all primary care doctor visits are stress-related.
Stress takes an immense toll on your body. Our bodies developed the fight-or-flight response to handle genuine emergencies, like an animal attacking. Even though many people no longer live in a dangerous environment, our bodies still experience the fight-or-flight response in reaction to ordinary challenges, like getting stuck in traffic, meeting a project deadline, or managing our finances, the APA says.
Basically, people often act like a bear is chasing them around. Any hiker knows that moment of panic when you encounter a bear, a snake, or another large wild animal—or even a sound—you think is dangerous. Your adrenal glands flood your body with stress hormones. Your muscles grow tense, your pupils dilate, your sense of smell and hearing heighten, your breathing and heart rate ramp up, and you start to sweat.
React like that every day, and the stress shows up in your body—in tight shoulders, tension in your jaw from grinding your teeth, or an aching in your lower back. The physical focus on strength and mobility in yoga helps you function day to day. But layered underneath those physical benefits are critical practices that lessen stress and anxiety, and help you to move through challenging situations.
A technique as simple as looking at a tree can reduce stress. A frequently cited study published in the journal Science in 1984 by environmental psychologist Roger Ulrich showed that hospital patients had shorter hospital stays, took fewer painkillers, and recovered more quickly overall from surgery when they could see a tree out their window. This study is a window into why people often feel more at ease in the wilderness: being outside reduces stress. That alone is good to know, but you can take it to another level by bringing a mindfulness practice to your hike. When you pause to gaze at layers of rock exposed by a steady, patient river, or halt in your tracks to spot an eagle soaring overhead, something in your mind and body shifts. You forget about your latest project at work, the bothersome neighbor, or long to-do list. Your mind clears. You are present.
Meditation, its own mindfulness practice, produces a state of restful alertness in your body, according to the Chopra Center, a wellness center founded by Deepak Chopra and David Simon. When you are in a state of restful response, your heart rate slows down, your blood pressure normalizes, your breathing calms down, and you sweat less, the Chopra Center says. Your body also produces less adrenaline and cortisol, your pituitary gland releases more growth hormone, and your immune function improves. A growing body of evidence suggests the amygdala, the area of the brain responsible for fight-or-flight, shrinks with just eight weeks of mindfulness training.
LEARN TO PAUSE
Studies have suggested yoga can have an effect on the brain similar to that of antidepressants and psychotherapy. One study by Duke University researchers published in Frontiers in Psychotherapy showed that yoga plays a role in treating depression, sleep challenges, and even in schizophrenia and attention deficit disorder (ADD). Your quality of life also may improve. Free safety Earl Thomas of the Seattle Seahawks told Mindful magazine that a meditation and mindfulness practice has changed the way he looks at the world. “It’s an inner thing,” he said. “When you’re quiet and don’t say anything, you start to see the unseen. That’s why people need to be observant and listen. When I turned my ears to listening, I improved personally and in everything.”
I’ve seen it happen over and over. Take my student Brian. He came every Saturday to my yoga class, riding his bike no matter the weather and smiling a shy hello each week.
I later learned Brian was an alcoholic. He took up yoga at age thirty-one to help him with his sobriety. Yoga helped him feel better physically—and he can now touch his toes. An old shoulder injury healed, allowing him to throw a baseball again. His sciatica eased up. He met his girlfriend at the studio.
The practice was a window for him to understand why he smoked pot and drank so much—to numb his anxiety. “I had an incredible amount of tension,” he says. “I doused it with alcohol.”
Through yoga and breathing, he learned to be with his emotions. After class, his mind no longer raced, looping the same repetitive thoughts. He realized if he was feeling angry or stressed or irritable, he could zoom out of his head, ask himself what was going on, and realize that he didn’t have to feel that way. In the early days, he got emotional during final rest. “Yoga in a lot of ways is about observing self and being with challenge, not necessarily trying to make it go away,” he says.
Once you use the tools consistently, yoga filters into every layer of your life. New possibilities emerge through the practices of presence and listening.
TRANSFORMATION AND CHOICE
Yoga teaches you to observe yourself. Perhaps you’re obsessed with backpacking because the wilderness is the only place you feel grounded, and you don’t know how to access those feelings of peace at home. A yoga practice can help you figure that out.
At my first yoga teacher training, I sat across from another trainee and repeated my sob story over and over, crying as I talked: My editors at the newspaper had moved me from my dream job to one I didn’t want. I listed all of my misery, including layoffs, departures of dear mentors, an unfruitful job search, and what I considered unreasonable demands at work.
Every time I told her the story, her job was to respond, “Blah blah, blah blah.” The idea was to repeat the story until I no longer felt suffering. The first few times she blah-blah’d me, I felt anger through my tears. By the eighth telling, the words started to lose their meaning. By the twelfth, I could recount my tale without feeling intense pain, plus I noticed I’d created a lot of drama about my career. It was only a job.
At the training, I set a goal to leave the paper in a year to teach yoga. When I returned from the training, work felt OK. Nothing changed, on the surface. My responsibilities and requests from my editor didn’t change. But I did. I went with the flow. I didn’t take it personally when I was assigned a story or my editor gave me feedback. I sometimes worked late on deadline, but unlike before, I didn’t get angry or resentful. I even thought cheerily for the next few months that I could teach yoga on the side and be content.
And for a few months, I was. But when I was honest with myself, I knew the truth—my best self was not thriving at the newspaper. I wasn’t aligned with the work any more. I was practicing contentment (santosha), a yoga teaching, but I had not been honest (satya), another teaching. I was terrified about giving up health insurance and a retirement plan to run a business entirely dependent on one person—me. But those reasonable concerns were holding me back. I had to try a life teaching yoga.
I saved more money, plotted, and stressed constantly. A dear friend and mentor advised me to be less Western and deadline-oriented. “Set an intention,” she said. Four months later—a year and four months after saying I would leave the newspaper to teach yoga full-time—I did.
When I wonder what I am supposed to do, who I am supposed to be with, what is next, or why am I here on this planet, I have learned that I must first stop spinning out on my thoughts. Anxiety, fear, and doubt feel heavy in my head, stomach, and face. When I am present, I am excited, energized, and ready for what’s next. I let my intuition guide me.
I go to yoga, or I meditate, or I pause in the midst of what I am doing. I see what is true about myself and what I can do. Instead of questioning myself, I have gone on harder hikes than I give myself credit for. Instead of being afraid of the response, I said “I love you” first to my partner. When I wondered if I was certifiably insane each time I quit financially stable jobs to follow a dream, I still did it—first, to teach yoga, and second, to write a book.
You might now be hearing a little voice inside that says, “Wow, great for her, that won’t happen for me.” In the great words of my mentor, Susanne Conrad, “Stop it!” Don’t listen to that voice. Get on your mat. Breathe. Meditate. Practice. Hike. The answer is already in you.